"Paper Territory": Early Hebrew Journalism and Its Political Roles

By Soffer, Oren | Journalism History, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

"Paper Territory": Early Hebrew Journalism and Its Political Roles


Soffer, Oren, Journalism History


This article explores the political functions of eastern European Hebrew journalism in Jewish life in the second half of the nineteenth century. For the Jewish communities spread throughout the world and lacking central political and economic leadership, the press functioned as a virtual "town square, "facilitating the flow of information and the exchange of ideas. The Hebrew press, which had the potential to bridge language barriers between distinct Jewish communities, was characterized by its self-perception as a leader, a spokesman, and a public institute as well as its reflection of the "general-Israeli" spirit. This self-perception, combined with the characteristics of journalism as a mode of communication and the national legacy of the Hebrew language, contributed to the re-imaging of the Jewish nation in a modern and secular form.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, an extensive Jewish journalistic network was established, consisting of publications in a variety of languages, both "Jewish" and European.1 These journals expressed many different ideas and ideologies to a varied readership. Despite the ideological hostility that existed among some of its components, this new network was part of the formation of modern communication in Jewish communities.2 The establishment and content of these journals marked the increasing influence of modern patterns of communication on Jewish life: the shift from a relatively "closed society" with a traditional/religious system of social norms to a more open society heavily influenced by its surroundings. If the press had a great significance for nations (or future nations) situated in territories that were (or would be) considered their homeland, its importance was even more profound for the Israeli nation in the modern era.3 For Jewish communities-far from the territory they considered to be their homeland, lacking central political and economic leadership, and spread throughout the world-the press functioned as a printed-word public sphere:"4 it was an intertwined network or forum that spanned geographic and linguistic boundaries.5 These journals were a vital tool for identifying and characterizing common political issues, thus assisting communication and coordination between different communities.

Despite both the increasing scholarly recognition of the importance of the Jewish press and the widespread use of materials from these journals as historical sources in the study of modern Jewish history,6 the contribution of the Jewish press in general, and the Hebrew press in particular, to Jewish secularization, modernization, and nation building has been largely understudied. This article will explore some of the political functions of eastern European Hebrew journalism within Jewish life in the second half of the nineteenth century, focusing on the journals' self-perception with regard to their social and national functions. Because of the limited scope of this article, it will only be possible to highlight some of the major points of this issue, thus revealing the research potential hidden in these journals.

It will be argued that the use of Hebrew facilitated the flow of information and the exchange of ideas in these journals. This process, combined with the cultural and political legacy inherent in the Hebrew language, promoted a discourse that spoke on behalf of all Jewish communities-in effect, speaking for the Jewish nation. The combination of these three elements-the essential characteristics of journalistic communication, the social and self-perception of the Hebrew journals, and the use of the Hebrew language-created a platform that encouraged the development of modern Jewish nationalism.

A clarification must be made regarding the methodology, the size, and the nature of the sampling of Hebrew journals. This article is based on a much larger work that focused on the Ha-Tzfira7 journal (which was first published in Warsaw in 1862) and the modernization of Hebrew political discourse. …

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